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Make Politics a Priority!

Student members explain how getting involved in local politics impacts the education profession.

By Cindy Long

Sara Casey (left), a senior at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, got involved in local politics when Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) “decided that it would be a good idea to cut millions from public education.”

“I am a student going into the teaching profession, and if I’m not going to get involved for my future, who will?” she asks.  

Casey realizes that the politics of education, whether they start at the federal or state level, are always local—especially for educators. When state education funding is cut, school district funding gets cut, too. According to the findings of a statewide survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, districts around Pennsylvania responded to the financial stress caused by Corbett’s nearly $1 billion in education cuts by trimming electives, tutoring, and teaching positions. When jobs are eliminated, class sizes balloon and it becomes  difficult for would-be teachers to enter the profession.

Finding a job in education is one of the main reasons Curtis Whitley, a student at California State University at San Marcos, is active in local politics. Whitley, who plans to become a high school history teacher, knows that education funding could mean the difference between getting hired by a California high school or cobbling together a string of substitute teaching gigs with no guarantee of ever finding a permanent position.

Whitley is also involved in local politics because of the tremendous power of school boards. He knows elected and appointed district officials decide everything from educator salaries and dress codes to job descriptions, admitting that for a while his activism was limited to state and national elections. All of that changed when one of his instructors asked him to name any school board members who ran for election last November.

“I couldn’t do it, and I knew then that I had to become better informed and more politically active to be a strong advocate for myself and my future students,” he says. “All of the people making these decisions answer in one way or another to their constituency, which includes the educators they preside over. It’s imperative that educators advocate for their students as well as themselves at the local school board level, and it was time for me to get in the know about who they were.”

The Politics of Public Education

Public schools are entrusted with two things that Americans hold dear—children and tax dollars. So when it comes to how their children are educated and how their tax dollars are spent, they have a lot of competing views. Enter politics. Funding becomes a political debate. Curriculum becomes a political debate. Even vending machines become a political debate. Many people find themselves fed up with politics after a long, grueling presidential campaign and a gridlocked Congress, but it’s impossible to separate politics from public education. Those who get involved and take part can make politics work in their favor.

Sometimes people who say they’re fed up with politics are really just doubtful about their role in the process, says Amy Mayfield, a credentialing student in Chico, Ca., and a State Representative in the Student California Teachers Association (SCTA). During the 2012 election, Mayfield was very involved with promoting California Proposition (Prop) 30, which increased funding for public schools. She also worked to defeat Proposition 32, which would have limited the union’s ability to advocate for its members.

“I learned that so many people were confused or misinformed,” she says. “A lot of people shy away from politics because they’re confused about the issues and they don’t feel comfortable speaking up and asking, so they tune it out. But whether we think so or not, politics directly affects us all. What happens in these elections has a direct link to every classroom. Teachers are one of the top three most trusted professions—we need to speak up and educate our parents and communities about what is really happening in schools.” 

Nicole Sims is Mayfield’s classmate at California State University at Chico. She also noticed there was a lot of misinformation being spread around about Props 30 and 32, but that a lot of people wanted to be educated on the issues.

“I wore a sign that said ‘Yes on 30, No on 32’ for nine straight days and people would stop me on the street to ask me about them,” Sims says. Her fellow students were also interested in learning more, and becoming educated and engaged paid off for them.

“Collectively we can make a difference,” she says. “We were successful in passing Prop 30 and defeating Prop 32 because educators believed in the importance of the issues and spread the word.”

Student activist Brittany Jones from Fairfax, Va., learned how spreading the word locally is the best way to impact politics nationally.

“For my age group, the 2012 presidential election really opened our eyes to the fact that if you’re not involved, then you can’t really complain about what happens,” Jones, 24, told Education Votes. “Before I was eligible to vote, I never really paid that much attention. I just thought that ‘Okay, somebody’s going to be president,’ but this last time it was really heavy.… I saw how big a role government plays in your life, whether you’re in school and you’re on grants or if you’re still able to stay on your parents’ insurance. If you’re not paying attention all of it can easily be taken away.”

Jones, who is working toward her master’s degree in education at George Mason University, and is also a full time preschool teacher, phone banked and went door to door to speak to potential voters about the presidential election. She asked people what issues they cared about and what was most important to them.

“You have to make the connections to home first before you can tell them about a candidate.”

Jones, who is an NEA Student Program member, feels the student vote was a deciding factor in the election. “We’re not part of Super PACS, we’re not part of these organizations that have multi-billions of dollars, but we do have a vote and we do have a voice.”

Find out how you can get active in your community and on campus. 

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